The Inside Scoop

Katy Koontz

Flight attendants are brilliant. Not only have they figured out how to travel the world and get paid to do it, but they also dispense some amazing wisdom before every takeoff. Their spiel about what to do if the oxygen masks suddenly drop always ends with: “If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.”

The first time I heard this speech, decades ago, I instantly got it: If I rush to help someone else and I pass out in the process, I’ve endangered both of us. But once I have the oxygen I need, I will be readily available to help others. That may seem counterintuitive at first—after all, it’s drilled into our heads to put others first. But in this scenario, effectively serving others requires a small but critical selfish first step.

Cheryl Richardson (the subject of this issue’s “Listening in With …”) is known for teaching a practice she calls extreme self-care. It involves first putting on our own oxygen masks before we attend to our family, friends, and community. “Our availability to be of service to the world is directly related to our ability to be of service to ourselves,” she teaches, adding that extreme self-care helps us balance those demands that drain us with those activities that sustain us.

In our interview, Richardson talked about how she took that idea one step further in midlife to jettison all that feels like an obligation in favor of what instead feels joyful and nurturing. It takes courage to banish the word should so we can discover, as she puts it, whether we are really living or just going through the motions.

What Richardson describes is the archetypal three-stage hero’s journey: the departure (you feel like a square peg in a round hole), the initiation (you overcome obstacles and learn to have patience with not knowing), and the return (you come back with a deeper understanding).

“The hero’s journey is a spiritual crisis,” Richardson told me, “and I don’t think we hear enough about spiritual crises. We talk about believing in God and honoring the soul and all of that, but taking this journey requires a new kind of connection or reconnection to a power greater than ourselves.”

The depth of such a connection gives us the trust to stay open to divine wisdom without the static we experience when we’re attached to the way we think our lives are supposed to look like. We may end up on a very different path than the one we (and everyone else, for that matter) initially envisioned for us. But the prize is worth the effort, Richardson assured me. It means the difference between living a life that’s only mediocre and one that’s truly meaningful.

Katy Koontz, Editor